This is a series of articles that I've been writing for the newsletter of the Central Texas Bluegrass Association. Now, you can get this info even if you're NOT from Texas. :^)
The intent is to teach basic music theory in small bites, and I'll try to update this site as the articles continue to roll out over the months ahead. They are sequential, and very low tech: just text...but hopefully, they may open some doors


In The Beginning....

When you reduce the guitar to its simplest terms, it comes down to these two things: First, recognizing a sound. Second, reproducing that sound. (The sound may be on a recording, or at a live jam, or just in your own head, but the process is the same.) The degree to which you can do this is strongly related to the degree to which you attain mastery on the instrument. For some players, that's the whole ballgame. The recipe for success is, as Norman Blake says, "time behind the box". Forget music theory. Forget formal study. Just listen to a lot of the music you love, sit behind that Martin for 6 or 8 hours a day, and, Shazam! In just 9 or 10 years, you may be a master!...Or maybe not...because the ability to hear and reproduce sound is, it pains me to mention, not handed out quite evenly at birth. ("Somebody musta got double, cause I got none!")
To pursue these simplest terms, start playing melodies by ear. Try this: Play the melody of "Happy Birthday". Start with the open G (or third) string. See if you can play the whole melody on just that one string. Trial and error. Struggle through. Playing on just one string isn't exactly the model of efficiency for the left hand, but it has its advantages, too. It teaches you, in a very linear way, just how far one note is from another. After you're comfortable with this exercise, try playing the same melody, starting at the same place, but use whatever strings you need in order to stay on the first three frets. This is called playing in the "first position", because your index finger is based at the first fret.
Once you can play "Happy Birthday" in these two ways, start a third version. This time, start with your index finger on the G note at the fifth fret of the D (or fourth) string. Don't use any open strings. Stay in this position (called the "fifth position") on the neck, using a finger per fret. Your index finger plays all the fifth fret notes. Your middle finger plays all the 6th fret notes, etc. If you need to reach beyond the four fret reach of your four fingers, stretch the pinkie up on fret, or the index finger down one fret to reach the 9th or 4th fret respectively. As with the other two exercises, find the notes by ear. Struggle through.
Now, try to make this a daily practice. Set aside a few minutes of your practice time. Pick a simple tune. Maybe you¹ll try "9 pound hammer" next. Do the three exercises: single string, first position, and fifth position. Use your ears. This is, as I said earlier, reducing the guitar to its simplest terms. The simplest terms aren't always the easiest or most effective ones for everyone. Along with recognizing and reproducing a sound on the instrument, there¹s a third process we'll explore in the next column: Finding a way to hear the sound, reproduce the sound, and UNDERSTAND how the sound fits into the geometry of the guitar fingerboard and the mathematics of music theory.

The Mother Of All Scales

Before I get going this month, I want to encourage you to save these articles. I'm teaching things in a particular order to help you understand, and having the past issues for reference would be a great idea. Now,... Onward!!
For many "unschooled" musicians, the term "music theory" is a frightening thing to consider, but "theory" is something we all use in some aspect of our lives. A mechanic understands the "theory" behind the workings of your car's engine. Would you give your car to a mechanic who didn't understand how an automobile engine works? Well, music theory involves understanding the mechanics of music. For those who have trouble making music intuitively, music theory can be a great tool for developing musical ability.
I'd say, "Let's start simply, with the idea of a scale, which is simply a way of separating the 'right' notes from the 'wrong' notes," but, even before you can really understand how we choose notes for scales, it helps to know which notes there are to choose from altogether. There are, in all, twelve notes. We've chosen to name these notes by using the first seven letters of the alphabet, along with the term "sharp", which means "higher in pitch", and the term "flat", which means "lower in pitch". There are reasons for this weird method, but, unfortunately, for beginners, it's easy to get confused, so we're going to take it kind of slowly.
Go to the G string. It's a G note when played open. 2nd fret is an A note. 4th fret is a B note. 5th fret is a C note. 7th fret is a D note. 9th fret is an E note. 10th fret is an F note. 12th fret is G again, an octave higher than the open string. The frets we didn't just mention (1, 3, 6, 8, 11) can be called either "sharp" or "flat". For example, the first fret of the G string is "G sharp", but it's also "A flat". There is no sharp or flat between E and F, and also none between B and C. That means that there are seven "alphabet" notes, and only five "sharps or flats". That makes twelve in all, and then you're back at the beginning again. Once you understand this, you can find any note on the guitar, so long as you know the names of the open strings (E,A,D,G,B,E from lowest to highest). Try playing every fret on the G string in turn, naming the notes as you play them. Going straight up the line will give you G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, and back to G again at the twelfth fret. Then, as we did last month, try playing these notes in the first position, with one finger per fret. (The notes occur in the same order on every string. They just have a different starting point.) This is called the "chromatic" scale, and includes every note. Its musical "color" is sort of like "white", because it includes ALL the colors, but it is the mother of all the other scales.
Now, dig out your old recording of Doc Watson playing "The Call Of The Road". You'll hear Doc play a smooth, fast chromatic scale at the end of each verse. (I can't remember if he's capoed or not, but he's playing out of the A minor position.) See if you can play this scale in the key of A, starting on the open A string and playing every note up to the second fret of the G string, which, as we already found, is also an A note. Next month we'll start talking about some other scales.

The Major Scale

Last month we discussed the chromatic scale, which includes every note available for the musician to choose from. Now let's do some choosing! Any other scale is a collection of notes chosen from the chromatic scale. The notes are chosen so as to create a certain tonality, or musical color. Some scales sound happy, others sound sad. Still others may evoke the feeling of a certain culture. We've all heard musical passages and thought, "Hey that sounds Chinese!" Or Arabian, or Native American. Amazingly, with only 12 notes to choose from, there is the possibility of creating a huge number of musical tonalities which represent many different groups and cultures. You may hear a scale and think, "Hey, that sounds like Bluegrass!!"
The starting point for understanding all these scales is the major scale. Why? I don't know. It just grew up as the source scale in western culture. Maybe a musical historian could tell you, but I'm just a guitar picker. Anyhow, the major scale is made up of a combination of half steps and whole steps. A half step is a one fret jump on your guitar. A whole step is a two fret jump. If you play the 3rd fret of your low E string, and then play the 4th fret, you've travelled one half step. Play the 3rd fret and then the 5th fret, and you've travelled one whole step. (Likewise, since the 5th fret of your low E is identical to the open A string, that jump from the 3rd fret of the low E to the open A string is also a whole step. This knowledge should help you find your way across the fingerboard.)
The pattern for the major scale goes like this: Starting with the first note of the scale, you jump a whole step, then another whole step, then a half step, then a whole step, another whole step, yet another whole step, then a last half step, and you should be back at the starting note, only one octave higher. Try it on the open G string. It'll go ³open G, then 2nd fret, 4th fret, 5th fret, 7th fret, 9th fret, 11th fret, 12th fret.² If you remember how to locate the notes by their letter names (from last month's lesson), you'll find that, starting on the open G, your major scale is "G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G". Sharps or flats (like the F# in the G scale) occur in all the major scales (except C major) because we are superimposing an asymmetrical scale pattern (our odd collection of half and whole steps) over the equally asymmetrical chromatic scale (with its 7 naturals and 5 sharps or flats).
Now, here's a little task for you: Starting on the G note at the 3rd fret of your low E string, walk up the major scale pattern of whole and half steps on the low E string. It'll take you all the way to the 15th fret. Then teach yourself to play these same notes, but all on the first four frets of your guitar, using the four wound strings. You'll end on the open G string. Then do the same thing with our earlier scale, which started on the open G. It'll take you up to the third fret of the high E. Put these two scales together and you have a two octave G major scale in the first position (index finger based at the first fret). Get comfortable with this two octave scale. Play it up and down, play little segments of it up and down, and even just jump around from note to note. Next month, we'll discuss more ways to explore the major scale.

The Major Scale, take 2

Last month we talked about the notes included in the major scale. This month, let's talk about a couple practical exercises which allow us to start creating improvisational passages when playing a tune. Basically, we can divide the idea of scale studies into two areas: 1) Which notes are in the scale? (This dictates the "tonality"), and 2) What order can we establish with these notes to create interest for the listener?
We're going to take a very simplistic approach today, but the answer to this second question is actually very philosophically complex. It has to do with considering how improvisation relates to the original melody of the tune, and how abstract or literal the improvisation should be. If you're improvising without regard for the melody, you¹ll be accused of "just playing licks". If you play only the melody, well, that may not even be improvisation... but let's leave this discussion for another day.
For today, let's learn some simple mechanisms for stringing notes together in an interesting way. The first mechanism is playing the major scale "in fours". First, review the G major scale we played last month. The notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, and they are numbered, respectively, one through eight. Starting on the G note that¹s at the third fret of your low E (6th) string, play four notes up the scale; G, A, B, C. Next, start at the second note of the scale, the open A (5th) string, and play four notes up the scale; A, B, C, D. Then go to the third note of the scale, B (2nd fret of the A string) and play four notes up; B, C, D, E. Get the picture? Numerically, we're going 1-2-3-4, 2-3-4-5, 3-4-5-6, 4-5-6-7, 5-6-7-8, and on. You'll begin on that low G, and just keep heading upward till you hit the high G at the third fret of your high E string. Then you can start back down, playing 8-7-6-5, 7-6-5-4, 6-5-4-3, 5-4-3-2, 4-3-2-1, etc.
The second exercise is similar; playing the scale "in threes". This version still has a four note pattern, but, instead of 1-2-3-4, we play 1-2-3-1, 2-3-4-2, 3-4-5-3, 4-5-6-4, 5-6-7-5, etc. This one can also be played up and down.
The third exercise is called "two steps forward, one step back", or the "1-3-2-4". You play the first note of the scale, then the third, then the second, then the fourth, and on. So it goes 1-3-2-4-3-5-4-6-5-7-6-8. Backwards, it's 8-6-7-5-6-4-5-3-4-2-3-1. Notewise, it's G, B, A, C, B, D, C, E, D, F, etc.
If any of these patterns sound confusing, just pick up your guitar right now and go through them one note at a time. Once you hear them, and feel them in your hands, they make more sense. Now, as I said, these are simply mechanisms; ways of putting scale tones together. After they fall easily to the hand, then you can think about creating little passages which utilize them in a musical way. Take a tune you play in G, and find a place where the rhythm calls for a G chord for a couple measures. Then try to compose a two measure "lick" using the "scale in fours", which will substitute for the melody at that point in the tune. It can start at any note of the major scale. It may be completely "scale in fours", or maybe just partly. After you've composed one in "fours", try one in "threes", and then in the "1-3-2-4" format. Next month, we'll continue this discussion.

Hearing Chords


I thought we¹d take a little break from all the scale discussion this month, and talk a bit about chords. What makes music interesting? In a sense, the same thing that makes a story interesting: Suspense! You create a little mystery, then the listener hangs on your every word to hear the solution. In musical terms, we call this ³tension and resolution², and one of the primary ways it emerges is in chord movement. In every key, there is a basic chord that creates tension, and a basic chord that resolves that tension. In the key of G, the tension chord is the D7, and the resolution chord is the G major. Songs in the key of G will almost always end on a G major chord, and, often, the D7 will be the ³setup² chord, which creates the tension right before the end.
We¹ll get right back to these, but, first, it may help to know why some chords fit well together and others don¹t. Chords work well together when they include notes from the same major scale. For example, the G major scale is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. If we base a chord on each of those scale steps, and only include G major scale tones as the other notes in the chords, we get these chords:
G, Am, Bm, C, D7, Em, Fmb5, G. There are three major chords, three minor chords, and a minor chord with a flat five, but right now we¹re just concerned with the major chords. We number these chords like we number the major scale tones, except we use roman numerals instead of our regular numbers, so you¹ll know that they¹re chord references rather than scale references. Thus, the G, C, and D7, are, respectively, the ³I², ³IV², and ³V² chords, and correspond to resolution, movement, and tension, in that order.
Now, when it comes to trying to identify these three basic chords by ear, I advocate the ³Louie Louie² system. If you play Louie Louie in the key of G, that beginning chord figure goes, ³G,G,G,... C,C... D7,D7,D7,... CC². So, if you¹re trying to figure out the chords to a new bluegrass tune, start with the first chord, and ask yourself, ³Is this the first Louie Louie chord?² If it is, then the second chord will usually be C or D7, and, right away, you have a 50/50 chance of guessing it. (Many bluegrass songs use these three basic chords, just like Louie Louie.) If it¹s not the C, then it¹s probably the D7. If it has more than 3 chords, start trying the three minor chords mentioned above; Em, Am, and Bm, which are, respectively, the relative minor chords of G, C, and D. If none of these work, try E7, A7, and B7; they start to break away from the G major scale, but still have a lot notes that ARE in the scale.
The bottom line on this stuff is that you improve with practice. At first, try figuring out songs with your guitar. As soon as you start to have some success, try listening to music while driving to work, and see if you can hear whether it¹s a ³I² chord, a ³IV² chord, or a ³V² chord. You don¹t need to guess which key it¹s in. Just imagine it¹s in C or G. As you get better, you¹ll be able to attempt more complex songs, like swing tunes. Success isn¹t instant, so be stubborn. See you next time.


Putting the Blues in Bluegrass

So far in these articles, we¹ve discussed the major scale as a primary tonality in western music. As far as popular music goes, though, there¹s another equally important scale to consider, and that¹s the blues scale. Old time country music and country blues grew up pretty much side by side, and both had their influence on bluegrass. We¹re going to discuss the blues scale in relation to the major scale.
As you¹ll remember, the major scale tones are numbered one through eight, and, if we¹re in the key of G, those notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and back to G. In the blues scale, we ³split the difference² between the 2 and 3, and again between the 6 and 7. Instead of playing A and B, we play the note in between; Bb. We call it the ³b3², or ³flatted third². Instead of playing E and F#, we play the note in between; F natural. We call this one the ³b7², or ³flatted seventh². These two notes are commonly referred to as the ³blue notes², because, by adding them to the scale, it imparts a mournful or darker sound to the tonality of the music.
So a pentatonic (5 tone) blues scale in G would include G, Bb, C, D, and F, before returning to G again. Try this on the top three strings of your guitar: The open G string, then the third fret (Bb), then the first and third frets of the B string, then the first and third frets of the high E string, and you¹ve played one octave of the pentatonic blues scale in G. We¹re going to stick one more blue note in here, though. It¹s the ³b5², or ³flatted fifth², which is the note between the fourth (C) and fifth (D). This note, Db, is also a ³blue² note, and one which is used very commonly in fiddle music. So the blues scale ends up being a six tone scale, with the tones being 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, and 8 (which is just ³1² played an octave higher). On the guitar fingerboard, play the open G string, then the 3rd fret (Bb), then the first, second, and third frets of the B string (C, Db, D), then the first and third frets of the high E (F and G). The notes are G, Bb, C, Db, D, F, G.
Of course, once you¹re comfortable with this little scale, you¹ll want to translate it to every other part of the fingerboard, either by ear, or by figuring out where the notes are, which we discussed in our column about the chromatic scale a few months back. Still, even with this one little scale position, you can start to experiment. Play the G major scale. Then play the G blues scale. Then invent a short melody using the G major scale, just 8 or 10 notes. The melody should start and end on a G note. Then see if you can play a blues version of this same melody. It should have the same rises and falls, but with blues tonality instead of major scale tonality. It needn¹t be too exact, of course, but should give you the sense of how the different scale changes the emotional message of the music. As you teach yourself the blues and major scales in different areas of the fingerboard, you can help train yourself by doing this exercise all over the neck. Next time, we¹ll talk a little about how you can integrate these two scales for a more complex tonality.


Putting the Blues in Bluegrass- pt. 2


In my earlier articles, we¹ve gradually moved through the basics of understanding the chromatic scale as the foundation of all scales, the major scale as the foundation of American and European music, and, most recently, the blues scale as the foundation the Afro-American music form called ³the Blues². Now, by wedding the major scale and the blues scale, we can begin to return to that original state, the chromatic scale, in which all notes are available, but with one difference: By knowing the major and blues scales, we can understand the notes of the chromatic scale in the context of how each note helps define the color of what we are playing.
So here¹s a little review: Remember that the chromatic scale has 12 tones. The major scale contains the notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. (Eight, of course, is simply the ³one² raised an octave.) The blues scale contains 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, and 8. So, if we eliminate notes which repeat in both scales, we now have 1, 2, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, 6, b7, 7, and 8. In the G scale, that would be G, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, E, F, F#, and G. The only notes from the chromatic scale that are missing are Ab (the b9) and Eb (the #5). These two notes both add a much more jazz-tinged flavor to your playing, and, although this hybrid scale is jazzier than either the major or blues scale alone, it¹s still not TOO jazzy. Also, it¹s good to remember that the ideas I¹m putting forth here are meant as a sort of ³quickstart² approach to understanding scales and melody for the purpose of playing bluegrass and country music. The mathematics of jazz can become much more intricate. My point is that you can get a LOT of mileage from just these few scales, and then, if your interest has been stimulated, you may explore this stuff more deeply in a few years.
At any rate, here¹s an easy fingering for messing with this more complicated scale. Start in the third position (your index finger is based at the third fret, and then you go ³one finger per fret² above there). Play the 5th fret of the D string (G note) with your third finger. Then, on the G string, play the 3rd and 4th frets (Bb and B). On the B string, play the 3rd, 5th, and 6th frets (D, E, & F). Then, on the high E string, play the 3rd, 5th, and 6th frets (G, A, & Bb) before returning to the 3rd fret for the G note. This gives you slightly more than one octave, and, although it doesn¹t include all the notes of our hybrid scale, it definitely hits the high spots. You¹ve got 1, b3, 3, 5, 6, b7, then, in the next octave, you have 1, 2, and b3 before returning to the 1 note again.
Mess with this position until you¹re comfortable and automatic on it. Then you can try adding and subtracting additional notes and listening to the change. Try the 6th fret of the G string (Bb=b5), or try playing frets 3, 4, & 5 of the B string and the high E; that adds in those jazzy notes, the #5 and b9, and takes out the b7 and b3 that are at the 6th fret of those two strings. Mix and match. Record yourself and tell the recorder which notes you¹re playing so you can match the sound with the technique when you listen back. That¹ll take you back to our original idea of hearing a sound and being able to reproduce it! Have fun!